Science - March 2, 2006

In the News / German multiculturalism

While the Netherlands seems to be struggling with questions of ethnicity, religion and freedom of speech, Germany is often mentioned as a multicultural success. One of the major Dutch newspapers, de Volkskrant, published an article last week on the ‘German multicultural euphoria’. But to what extent is a German aware of multicultural differences?

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Geo-Information MSc student Philipp Gärtner was born in socialist East Germany. For the first twelve years of his life he lived with the constant presence of big brother Russia. He learned Russian at school, grew up without the colour of commerce and saw the wall between East and West come down as a youngster. Careful in choosing his words, he is not afraid to look things up in the dictionary, and admits that some claims are simply beyond his scope. He likes the Netherlands, which he regards as not that different from his homeland. But after eighteen months in Wageningen he says he would not want to stay forever, a contributory factor being the lack of sun. He is talking while packing up his belongings, as he is leaving for Bonn on Friday, where he will do his thesis research.

Whereas in Holland the recent discussions in politics and the media have been dominated by the importance of ethnic integration, mastering the Dutch language and freedom of speech, according to Philipp the major topics during the recent election period in Germany were the stagnating economy and the high unemployment rate. ‘Questions on ethnicity are there, and some newspapers probably devote attention to these,’ he starts, ‘But as I see it, most Germans consider the issue of the economy as much more essential to the country.’

‘It’s important to be aware that there are big multicultural differences between former East and West Germany. Whereas there was large-scale immigration of Turkish people in West Germany during the sixties and seventies, East Germany was closed to these people until the collapse of the wall in 1989. As a result there are few ethnic groups in former Eastern Germany.

‘In general I think Germans are polite and open towards strangers. Integration goes quite well. I lived in East Berlin for three years and experienced a very multicultural atmosphere, something I always liked. Left-wing people are very willing to live among the Turkish community, and do so, which has resulted in a lively mixture of cultures.’

The murder of the Dutch filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical, a year ago in Amsterdam, was a special case that in theory could have happened in Germany as well, Philipp thinks. ‘However, as with events like the current racial unrest in France, I do not experience this as a threat for Germany at the moment. Conflicting radical opinions will always be there, but in Germany I think they simply do not have a prominent place in society.

‘Also, as far as I’m concerned, the extreme right-wing neo Nazis, that are sometimes mentioned as a German theme of concern and have created uproar in the past, have a limited role in the public debates of today. This is a movement that behaves in ups and downs and generally distances itself from the cultural mixture of ethnic groups and more left-wing people.

‘I think that Holland and Germany are not that different. The only big difference lies in their history. Since Germany has always been strongly associated with the Second World War, and hence with Nazis and fascism, our commonsense today is to be polite to strangers. This is not something we learn at school or so, but rather a common fear of being associated with fascism if you raise your voice on ethnicity.’ A background the Netherlands lacks with its more neutral and liberal past. / Martijn Vink

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